LONDON (Reuters) - China’s massive medal haul at the London Games has once again showcased the country’s ability to produce champions through its rigid Soviet-style sports regime, but national pride has been tempered by concerns about the human costs of sporting glory.
Chinese bloggers expressed their disgust last week after a Shanghai newspaper reported that the parents of Olympic diver Wu Minxia had concealed her mother’s long battle with breast cancer for fear of disturbing her training.
Wu, 26, who was also shielded from news of her grandparents’ deaths, shrugged off the controversy to win both the synchronised and individual three-metre springboard events in London.
“It’s not only Chinese athletes who are like this. Parents seldom come to our training base and we are just like a big family who all train together,” Wu said after winning the individual title on Sunday.
“There may be distance from our families but the distance doesn’t make us feel we are far apart. I chose to be a diver to pursue this goal.”
While the fall of Communism in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s put paid to the command-and-control systems that turned the Soviet Union and East Germany into sporting superpowers, China’s “juguo tizhi” - literally ‘whole nation system’ - remains as entrenched as ever.
Like Wu, the greater majority of China’s 396 Olympians have started their sports at tender ages, sacrificed their childhoods for the state and drawn their emotional support from team mates, coaches and officials, in lieu of family members and friends.
The relationship remains strong between the athletes and the state that nurtured them, and fairytale stories abound of Chinese children wrenched from poverty and enriched by success on the global stage.
But the Olympic medals have obscured the more unsavoury aspects of the sports regime, which has been blamed for leaving less successful athletes uneducated and ill-equipped to thrive outside the competition venues.
It has also drawn criticism from Western coaches who have accused their Chinese counterparts of producing winners through systematic physical abuse.
“You wonder why the Chinese women are so successful? Most of the men are coaches. The women are literally beaten into submission,” Johannah Doecke, diving coach at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in the United States, told Reuters.
“If you said no to anything, you would be chastised, slapped around. It’s a brutal system.”
Doecke trained one of China’s elite divers in Chen Ni, who rose to a provincial grade before migrating to the U.S. at the age of 19.
Doecke describes Chen as someone who was terrified of making a mistake when she first came under her instruction.
“If she made a mistake, she would instantly kowtow and apologise,” she said.
Doecke worked with other Chinese coaches who had left their home country and said they would jest that she would need to be forceful to get the best out of Chen.
“As I worked with Chen, I would hear from time to time, ‘if you want a good performance out of her, you’ll have to beat her’,” she said.
China’s dominance in sports like table tennis and badminton has seen Western athletes level similar accusations of mistreatment.
Britain’s top women table tennis players said China’s methods would not be allowed elsewhere.
“It wouldn’t be legal in Britain to train as hard as the Chinese,” said Joanna Parker, Britain’s top female player, last week.
Her team mate Kelly Sibley told the Olympic news service: “It’s how they (Chinese coaches) treat them (Chinese trainee players) as well.
“We were playing a couple of years ago in a centre in Shanghai. Someone was playing and the coach just went up and kicked him in the side.”
Chinese officials have bristled at the criticism.
“You have to train hard. Why does the West think like this?” Shi Zhihao, the male head of China’s women’s table tennis team, said angrily in response.
“China is very free, if you want you can do it, and if you don’t want to do it you don’t have to.”
Chen declined to comment on whether she had been subject to physical discipline by her Chinese coaches, but defended it as being misunderstood.
“The coaches are like athletes’ parents,” she said in comments emailed to Reuters.
“Most of the time, coaches care about their divers even more than their own children.
“Diving is a dangerous sport, things could change in a second ... thus, as parents they have to do anything that force their children to do things safely.
“Sometimes it ends up (that they) hit their divers, but I know that it will more hurt inside of coaches every time when they had to hit their divers.”
The athletes that bring China Olympic glory stand to receive grateful thanks from the state, with cash bonuses from China’s national sports ministry and from lower levels of government for bringing prestige to their home towns and provinces.
Less successful athletes have much less to fall back on and state media have reported a number of cases of retired national champions struggling with long-term injuries and poverty.
Chinese athletes in London have, nonetheless, been largely unreserved in their praise of their coaches and the gruelling training systems that have taken the delegation to more than 35 gold medals in London.
However, Chinese swimmer Lu Ying, who won silver in the women’s 100 metres butterfly in London, spoke out against the team’s domestic training system as being all work and no play.
“In China we’re used to study, study and train, train and then rest,” Lu, who has done part of her training in Australia since 2008, said through an interpreter earlier this week.
“I think our way of thinking has many limits. In Australia I’ve been invited to barbecues with my teammates - that would never happen in China.”
China’s top badminton player Lin Dan, who defended his men’s singles gold at London, also broke ranks with his team amid a match-throwing scandal last week that claimed two of his team mates among eight players disqualified from the tournament.
The four women’s doubles pairs, including China’s world champions Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli, were expelled for deliberately playing to lose in a bid to improve their position in the draw for the knockout rounds.
Lin blamed the world governing body for instituting a round-robin format for the Olympic tournament that was ripe for manipulation, but said the disqualified players’ tactics had brought a “negative” impact on the sport.
Chinese bloggers linked that scandal to the country’s pursuit of Olympic medals at all costs and have criticised the system for putting too much pressure on Olympians to succeed.
“The whole-nation system is disastrous,” wrote one user on China’s Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo.
“The budding young talents are shut up in closed training schools from a young age and apart from their own events, almost have no other life skills.”
Despite the criticism, China’s Communist Party leaders rely on the system to produce champions that can puff up national pride, and are unlikely to tinker with it, according to Xu Guoqi, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and an expert in Chinese sports.
“As long as the Chinese are not confident enough of themselves in the world, as long as the regime has a legitimacy problem, it will continue its ‘juguo tizhi’,” he said in comments emailed to Reuters.
“Some people might criticise the system, but imagine the pressure and attacks on athletes and the regime if China fails to do well in the Games.”
Additional reporting by Steve Slater in London and Sabrina Mao in Beijing; Editing by Greg Stutchbury